Within a story, there can be multiple themes an author might be trying to convey. Some readers may pick up on those intentional themes, while others may find themes that the author never intended. The short story, “Bloodchild,” by Octavia Butler, is no exception as readers argue there are several themes present. However, the most controversial discussions are about whether “Bloodchild” is a story of slavery. Butler addresses this issue in the 'Afterword' to 'Bloodchild, expressing, 'It amazes me that some people have seen 'Bloodchild' as a story of slavery. It isn't” (Butler, 30). Although readers detect oppression between the two races, the story is not about slavery, but rather about, '… a coming-of-age story in which a boy must absorb disturbing information and use it to make a decision that will affect the rest of his life' (Butler, p.30). Through Butler’s use of rhetorical aspects, such as authorial intent, readers are finally able to understand the true theme of “Bloodchild.”
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Set on an alien planet, “Bloodchild” tells the story of Gan, an adolescent human deciding on what adult responsibilities he can handle. Humans, or Terrans, have long-lived among the Tlic, but their relationship is fraught. The Tlic protect the Terrans and permit them to live on the Preserve, a Terran habitat protected from the larger Tlic population, but, in exchange, the Tlic impregnate male Terrans with parasitic Tlic eggs that feed on their blood. Although Gan knew he would have to host his Tlic mate’s eggs within his body, he's given a fuller understanding of the extreme risk and gruesome nature of the task after accidentally witnessing a Tlic birth gone wrong. Gan describes how, 'T'Gatoi… deepened the cut, now and then pausing to lick away blood. I felt as though I were helping her torture him, helping her consume him' (Butler, p.15). His security of childhood is replaced by fear, and for the first time he is forced to come to terms with his role in society and what will be required of him. Through Gan’s struggle, Butler conveys that an individual comes of age when they accept the weight of their responsibilities, and the sacrifices involved, for the sake of others.
Gan’s childhood is defined by the fact that although he had knowledge of his role in society, he lacked the experience to fully understand the importance of his duty or how much it would cost him. Gan describes the events that take place as his, “…last night of childhood” (Butler, 3). While still experiencing his youth, Gan is loving and trusting toward T’Gatoi, reflecting his innocence. Up until this point, Gan has enjoyed the privileges of his position as T’Gatoi’s mate, such as extra provisions and protection, without evaluating the real cost to his own body. In the end, the cost of this interdependent relationship was losing his childhood and losing his innocence and from these losses, Gan finally wakes up to the reality of the world he lives in. Still a child, Gan has yet to question why he benefits from such unequal treatment. Gan is aware that his affections toward T’Gatoi differ vastly from those of his mother Lien, who resents T’Gatoi, yet Gan has not questioned why the relationship is this way. In his childishness, Gan only recognizes the effects that his mother’s attitude has on him; Lien is emotionally distant and resents the affection between T’Gatoi and himself. By separating herself, T’Gatoi becomes Gan’s only source of affection. Butler uses these details to cast childhood as a naive, self-absorbed state in which Gan has not yet considered the world around him.
Furthermore, readers view Gan and T’Gatoi ‘s relationship as oppressive. In the essay, “Would You Really Rather Die than Bear My Young?”, Elyce Rae Helford reveals, 'As a portrayal of a sexual relationship between dominant Tlic and disempowered human, the scene encourages a reading through the metaphor of white male slavemaster and enslaved female' (Helford, 266). Based on Butler’s description, T'Gatoi plays the part of the male slavemaster, while Gan plays the enslaved female. Through this portrayal, readers assume the author is, “…talking about slavery when what [she is] really talking about is symbiosis.” (Helford, 265). This symbiotic relationship had no slave-like tendencies on T’Gatoi’s behalf as originally thought by readers, but rather affectionate, maternal-like tendencies. The connection began when Gan was a baby and '…T'Gatoi liked the idea of choosing an infant and watching and taking part in all the phases of development' (Butler, p.8). Their relationship is unique in that T'Gatoi plays a major role in raising Gan. She becomes the mother figure in his life sworn to protect him. The mother-child relationship is strengthened when Lien, Gan's biological mother, becomes cold and distant towards him. Now that Lien has separated herself, T'Gatoi is the only source of affection Gan receives. This affection later blossoms into a love and interdependence of one another.
As Butler describes in her interview with Stephen Potts, “So often you read novels about humans colonizing other planets and you see the story taking one of two courses. Either the aliens resist and we have to conquer them violently, or they submit and become goods servants. I don’t like either of those alternatives, and I wanted to create a new one” (Potts & Butler, 332). By breaking the boundaries of typical science fiction writing, she created an interdependence between the alien and human species as an important aspect of each other's survival. As the Tlic government official, T'Gatoi was responsible to parcel the Terrans, '….. out to the desperate and sold us to the rich and powerful for their political support. Thus, we were necessities, status symbols, and an independent people. It was a little frightening to know that only she stood between us and that desperation that could so easily swallow us' (Butler, p.5). Through this social contract, the Tlic protect the Terrans in exchange to safely and carefully birth their young. This suggests that the key to thriving in an interdependent world is to contribute and sacrifice for the good of the community, and to accept what is given by others in return.
Even though the contract between species is symbiotic, some readers still view it as slavery. In an interview with Randall Kenan, Butler explains, ‘“Bloodchild” is very interesting in that men tend to see a horrible slavery, and women tend to see that, oh well, they had caesarians, big deal”’ (Kenan & Butler, 498). Men only saw slavery because males were the ones giving birth in the story and not women. Reversing the gender binary creates a sense of unfamiliarity and thus a sense of enslavement, since men do not have a say over their bodies. Women, however, saw the situation with normalcy since giving birth is a part of their life. Instead of being enslaved, women understand that the Tlic and Terran relationship is necessary for each species to continue. By embracing this economy, a harmonious society can be developed, and new life formed.
Gan’s childhood finally ends and his security shatters after seeing the gruesome reality of Bram Lomas’ Tlic birth, and by extension, the reality of the world he lives in. After seeing T’Gatoi slash open Lomas, T’Gatoi goes from being the most familiar person in Gan’s life to a creature that is alien and frightening. With Gan's new-found knowledge of what will happen to his body and knowing he's powerless to stop it, Gan contemplates ideas of suicide. In his eyes, dying by his own hand would be better than dying in the birthing process because at least then dying would be his own decision. Yet Gan is aware that if he were to somehow abandon his obligation to bear T’Gatoi’s eggs, the responsibility would be passed on to either his brother, Qui, or his sister, Xuan Hoa. Escaping from social responsibility will only advance his own burdens onto someone else. Gan’s impulse to flee reflects that he is no longer being ignorant of the world around him.